Sound of the Text
The initial sentences of the novel are made of such short clauses that they take on a staccato sound and it is somewhat jarring to read. Dostoyevsky writes, “I’m a sick man…a mean man. There’s nothing attractive about me. I think there is something wrong with my liver.” It isn’t just that the sentences are so short, it is also that the subject matter seems to wander. I wondered at times whether the narrator was mentally ill. This wandering subject matter contributed to my afloat feeling. I was exhausted just trying to follow his train of thought.
Drafting a Manifesto
The first section reads like a manifesto or a confession. The narrator keeps addressing an audience (who later turns out to be imaginary) as in, “Do you think I’m trying to make you laugh?” or sometimes as ladies and gentlemen. This second person plural address gave the effect of him being in an institution, whether mental or correctional. I loved the way Dostoyevsky implied questions and comments from this audience within the narrator’s ramblings. He took the words right out of my mouth when he said, “if you’re irritated by all my babble (and I feel you must be by now).” In that way Dostoyevsky turned this monologue into a dialogue. At times he goes so far as to provide a counterargument for what the implied audience would have said, as in, “’Ha-ha-ha! Strictly speaking there is no such thing as will!’ You may interrupt me.” I’m still trying to decide whether to use the second person address in my second novel, but I found the use of implied dialogue much more engaging than when the narrator was talking to himself and I would borrow that for certain.
There is one point in this first section where Dostoyevsky seemed to be making a point about free will through his narrator that could be taken as a larger commentary on Russian society, “Now you scream that no one intends to deprive me of my free will, that they are only trying to arrange things so that my will coincides with what is in my own interest.” It seems harmless enough because at this point I was convinced the narrator was quite mad and a few sentences later he retracts it saying, “Of course I’m joking, my friends, and I realize my jokes are weak.” But the point is made. I liked the way Dostoyevsky slipped in information that could ostensibly be recanted but couldn’t really.
The transition between the first section and the second was lovely. A few sentences before the actual shift from manifesto to story, the narrator says, “Today for instance I am particularly oppressed by an old memory.” He then intersperses ramblings with lead up to the story until the changeover. It made for a very nice transition because he alerted the reader that the subject was changing but also interspersed the logorrhea with the more narrative quality of the next section which tied the two together. I used a lot of white space between my sections for Polska, 1994, though I thought for a long while about looking for ways to better transition between them like tempering eggs before adding them to a batter.
The second person address and the blurts continue into the second section but what is really interesting is the note at the end of the novel, “Actually the notes of this lover of paradoxes do not end here. He couldn’t resist and went on writing. But we are of the opinion that one might just as well stop here.” This note simultaneously validates the second person address and brings into question the whole meaning of the story. I’m still thinking about this. I like that the story has given me something open and unfinished to ruminate on.
If this review made you want to read the book, pick up a copy of Notes from Underground from Powell’s Books. Your purchase keeps indie booksellers in business and I receive a commission.